Around 60 people in Los Angeles County were treated by first responders after a jet returning to Los Angeles International Airport dumped its fuel in mid-air, showering at least five elementary schools and a high school shortly before noon, CNN reported on Tuesday.
No one at any of the sites required hospitalization, Los Angeles School Police Department Sergeant Rudy Perez told the network. The 60 people involved appear to have mostly reported skin and eye irritation and in some cases the treatment consisted of decontamination with soap and water. While CNN reported that Park Avenue Elementary in Cudahy was worst-hit with reports of minor injuries to 20 children and 11 adults, San Gabriel Elementary, Graham Elementary, Tweedy Elementary, 93rd Street Elementary and Jordan High School also experienced a rain of jet fuel.
Delta Air Lines told CNN the fuel came from Flight 89, a Boeing 777 which was headed from LAX to Shanghai when it experienced an “engine issue” and was forced to return to the landing strip. The fuel dump was “required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight,” the airline added.
Video from the scene showed the plane flying over Los Angeles while spraying large amounts of fuel from the end of each wing. The L.A. Times reported that Flight 89 was only in the air about 25 minutes and that Flightradar24 data shows it never rose about 8,000 feet.
Park Avenue Elementary School sixth grader Josue Burgos told the Times that he had been outside for physical education class when students and staff noticed the plane.
“We came out and we were playing, and the airplane was outside and we thought it was rain, but then we knew it was throwing gas on us, and everybody started to run,” Josue told the paper. “We went to the auditorium and we knew what happened. We went back to class. We stayed for one hour and then we went home... Yeah, it smelled bad.”
“You couldn’t breathe it was so bad,” Francisco Javier, whose son is attending first grade at Park Avenue, told the Times. “It’s still strong, but not as bad as it was.”
Another student at the school, fifth grader Justin Guiti, told CNN, “Drops of water were coming down. I thought it was a rainbow, and I looked up, and it was gasoline.”
Planes are supposed to dump fuel over designated unpopulated areas; Aero Consulting Experts CEO Ross Aimer separately told the Times that most pilots would choose not to dump at all “unless the emergency really dictates it.” One possibility is malfunctioning landing gear that interferes with the pilot’s ability to safely fly a plane. When such a situation does occur, pilots try to dump fuel over 10,000 feet (or ideally higher to disperse the fuel further). The Flight 89 was just 2,300 feet or so above Park Avenue when it was dumping fuel, the Times reported.
However, pilots have broad authority to act when confronted with an emergency. Retired United Airlines pilot Douglas Moss told the Times that the captain is “authorized to break any rule in the book,” so long as his actions are “in the best interest of safety.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident to determine what could justify dumping the fuel over Los Angeles or whether someone had a serious lapse of judgement.
“There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major US airport,” the Federal Aviation Administration told CNN in a statement. “These procedures call for fuel to be dumped over designated unpopulated areas, typically at higher altitudes so the fuel atomizes and disperses before it reaches the ground.”